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‘The Commuter’ review: Semi-satisfying Liam Neeson thriller

Liam Neeson aims to find a stranger on

Liam Neeson aims to find a stranger on a train in "The Commuter." Photo Credit: Lionsgate / Jay Maidment

PLOT A businessman on a train is forced to hunt down a passenger he’s never met.

CAST Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga

RATED PG-13 (some strong action)

LENGTH 1:45

BOTTOM LINE Another transportation-based thriller from the “Non-Stop” team. Semi-satisfying.

In “The Commuter,” Liam Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a former cop turned insurance salesman whose life has become a tolerable grind: up with the news on 1010 WINS, catch the Metro-North from Tarrytown to midtown, clock in eight hours, then take the evening train back to his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), and teenage son, Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman).

“You’re a good soldier,” Michael’s boss says one day. While firing him.

With a start like this, you’d never know you were being set up for another compact little thriller by director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Non-Stop,” “The Shallows”). Initially, the movie strikes an almost too-convincing note of middle-class struggle and late-life anxiety. “Karen and me, we live hand to mouth,” Michael tells his implacable boss, then grows angry: “I’m 60 years of age!” It’s a good reminder that although Neeson is now associated with quickie action movies, his intensity as a dramatic actor hasn’t dimmed.

Eventually, “The Commuter” turns to the matter at hand: getting Michael involved in a dangerous plot that will unfold almost entirely on a speeding train. The catalyst is a beautiful woman, Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who sits across from Michael and casually poses a philosophical question: If someone offered you a lot of money to do something without ever knowing the outcome, would you do it? Joanna isn’t being hypothetical, of course, and Michael is soon forced (with his family as leverage) to scour the train and locate a passenger he has never seen.

Collet-Serra’s best movie to date, “Non-Stop,” featured Neeson as Bill Marks, an air marshal trying to find a killer in the middle of a commercial flight. “Non-Stop” effectively boiled its ingredients down to the minimum, like a balsamic reduction of 1980s action flicks. “The Commuter,” written by Byron Willinger and two others, isn’t as satisfyingly simple. It requires a corruption scandal, an FBI agent, a GPS tracker and several tough-to-explain deaths just to keep its slim premise functioning. As for the mysterious passenger, Michael wonders, as we do: “What am I supposed to do with him when I find him?”

In the end, “The Commuter” feels both overstuffed and empty. Still, there are a handful of thrills, including a rugged fistfight that involves, for some reason, an electric guitar. Neeson and Collet-Serra have both made better movies. For a throwaway thriller, though, you could do worse than “The Commuter.”

NOW BOARDING

Liam Neeson boards a train and ends up in the middle of a criminal conspiracy in “The Commuter.” Here are four other films in which a train ride didn’t go too smoothly.

LADY ON A TRAIN (1945) Singing sweetheart Deanna Durbin followed a different track with this mystery-screwball comedy about a dizzy heiress who witnesses a murder during a train ride. She also delivered a sultry version of “Night and Day.”

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece starred Robert Walker as a psychopath named Bruno who murders the unfaithful wife of a tennis player (Farley Granger). The plot thickens when the tennis ace won’t reciprocate by murdering Bruno’s father.

SILVER STREAK (1976) Gene Wilder plays a book editor who sees a man get thrown from a train but can’t get anyone to believe him. Joining him for the ride are Jill Clayburgh as an art historian and Richard Pryor as a petty thief.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016) Emily Blunt played the title role of a divorcee who passes by her old house during a daily train trip and becomes obsessed with a couple who live a few doors down. Her fascination soon leads her down a deadly road.

— Daniel Bubbeo

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